Natural Dyes – Dead man’s foot mushroom

On my walk this morning I found a lovely surprise. I was walking along slowly, much to the disgust of my puppy; Henry, when I saw a small brown lump at the edge of the path. This brown lump was a pisolithus arrhizus otherwise known as a Dead Man’s foot. This unassuming little sphere gives lovely rich browns and russet tones to wool in the dye pot… apparently. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Of course I forgot to get a photo of it before bringing it home.

The brownish ball at the front of the photo is my Dead Man’s Foot fungus (such a charming name). The avocado skins and seeds are drying for future use as dye stuff.

I cut my prize in half and put a pot of water on to boil straight away. The two halves of the mushroom were just thrown in and plonked on the wood stove to boil.

You can see the immature spores at the top, they look like little golden spheres. The brownish powder is the mature spores.

After about an hour of boiling, The pot had a lovely deep brown colour. Most fungas dyes are substantive (meaning they don’t need a mordant to stick to wool), so I just wet my last skein of home spun wool yarn and popped it into the dye pot (in a paint bag to protect it from dyestuff).

The yarn was in the dye bath on the stove (at a steady simmer) for two hours. Then I let it cool, before taking the yarn out of the pot.

The colour wasn’t as dark as I wanted, so I popped it back in, along with an avocado seed as a mordant (avocado seeds contain tannin, which acts to mordant and slightly darken wool).

After another two hours simmering, it was taken off the heat and left to cool. Eventually, I washed the yarn in clean water and spun it out. The final colour is glorious! Variable browns and russets and a sneaky flash of yellow.

I love the colours in tis yarn. The yarn is a loosely plyed two ply from some merino fleece I was given long ago. From now on I will be searching the ground for these fungus as I walk, they are apparently fairly common in the Autumn and Winter.

Update: I found another one this morning!

This one is huge. You can also see the remains of the first one, I fished it out and plan on saving it to use again.

This is where I found the first one; growing out of the hard soil of the track.

I found the second one here in the soil at the edge of the road. The puppy is Henry, our newest baby. Look for an origin story soon.

Natural Dyes – Johnson grass seed heads

I found some dark red grass seed heads beside the road on a drive home from work the other day. The deep red/maroon colour was particularly striking against the green of the other grasses. I stopped and harvested a handful of them. I managed to identify them later as Johnson grass, which is apparently a weed from the USA.

I bought the heads home and put them straight into the dye pot. I recently saw a YouTube video about natural dyes where the host uses paint strainer bags to keep the dye material together and makes the straining of the dye so much easier (just lift out the bag and the dye is ready to go). I bought a pack of these bags from Bunnings and tried them out in this project.

You can see the colour of the dye bath in this photo.

The bags work really well and are easy to wash out once the dye bath is ready. This is a really exciting discovery for me, I will be using them for every dye pot in the future.

I added the peels from a pomegranate to the dye bath to act as a mordant for the dye (as I didn’t think it would be very successful without mordant). The dye bath was heated to a simmer (not a boil) for about an hour and then left to soak until the next day. I rinsed the yarn out and hung it to dry.

The result? Another adventure into 50 shades of beige. But either the pomegranate or the grass heads have given the yarn (some of my homespun yarn from our sheep Eli) a sheen. This shine proved impossible to capture in a photo, but it is lovely. I think I will have to use this dyebath as an additive to other dyes and see if it gives a glow to other colours.

My search for local colour continues…

Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis (ammonia extraction)

On the way home from work I often notice trees that have lichens on them. Recently I stopped to see if there were any on the ground under one or two of them. There was a lot (we have had a few windy days) on some dead branches on the ground, so I came home with another large lump of Usnea to play with.

This time I wanted to try an ammonia extraction, which apparently gives a pink dye. Ammonia can be found in many places (supermarket shelves, rotted fruit and vegetables, and in urine) but I decided to go old school and use urine (since I am collecting it for wool scouring anyway).

I found a spare jar with a lid, and popped the lichen into it with enough urine to cover the Usnea. This concoction was left (in a dark, little used cupboard, away from visitors and pets) for about three months. I shook the jar daily (after making sure the lid was tight) and took the lid off to oxygenate it every few days and eventually got some colour from the mess.

After a week the mess began to show some colour.

After a two week soak, I decided to use my dye. I had to spin, ply and wash some wool to use my interesting (and very smelly) new dye on. I decided to set up a table outside so the smell has less chance of following me home.

I placed my newly washed yarn (home spun from our own sheep) into the dye bath and left the pot in the sun for two days. I didn’t want to take the pot into the house to heat it as the smell is horrific. When I eventually took the yarn out, it looked to be a brown colour rather than the pink I was expecting. I rinsed (and scoured, and rinsed, and rinsed) the yarn and it lost almost all of its colour.

After All that time I ended up with a beige. In order to salvage it a bit, I plonked one skein of the three into an iron after bath and got an interesting colour change.

As you can see, iron does indeed make colours darker and more intense. It also seemed to help get rid of the smell. All that washing has felted the skein a little though. I will try to salvage it with some hair conditioner.

Usnea seems to have an affinity with rough barked trees, Ironbark in particular.

My conclusion is that usnea is best used as a dye in a water bath and that I obviously did something wrong. I do love experimenting with new dyes, and I guess I have to get used to gaining insight into which plants give beige dye (maybe I could call this series ’50 shaded of beige’).

Lichen dyes – Usnea inermis

A new interest has floated into my mind over the usual holiday down time: lichen dye for wool. I have noticed that a lot of lichen grows on old fence posts beside the road. That started me thinking about what it is good for (as it turns out, quite a lot). I was driving home from a doctor appointment yesterday and began to notice the large amount of furry fence posts beside the road (much to the unease of the cars behind me, who must have been worried about my erratic steering and low speed), so I eventually pulled over and went to take some photos and collect samples to play with. I collected a couple of handfuls of lichen from a dead tree and took it home to play with.


After a fair amount of internet sleuthing, I found a likely candidate: Usnea. I also found some other lichens (that I left in place for now).

Some other lichens.

It seemed to be a natural progression to make this handful or two of squishy goodness into dye, so I found a YouTube video to show me how it is done and off I went…

I plonked the whole two handfuls in a pot with water and put it on to simmer for an hour or so. Some videos say it can be boiled, some say to not boil it, some say to boil it then cool and boil again, some say once is enough. I will just play it by ear and simmer until I get some colour, and if that doesn’t work, I will boil it.

Apparently this species of lichen is also really antibacterial and can be used to treat infections on the skin. I think I will also harvest some to dry and keep on hand in my herb collection.

Yes, I did get two different types of lichen in my harvest.

Now I wait.

After about two hours of gentle simmering, I decided to try boiling as there wasn’t a lot of colour showing in the water.

After two boiling sessions the pot is showing an uninspiring yellow/brown. I can see some orange tones in it, but I don’t think I have enough lichen for the pot to make orange. I will see what my wool does.

Some sources say that wool needs to be mordanted and some say that mordant can actually interfere with the process. I am going with the no mordant camp for my first skein (mostly because I’m impatient to see what I get from the lichen). Usually the wool is soaked in water before being plonked into the dye bath, but I just put the skein in dry (due, again, to impatience).

Strained dye bath, looking a lot like aged pee.
In it goes.
Now we wait, again.

I am heating up the dye bath again, to increase the dye uptake. I will leave the pot on the stove for an hour or so, then I will let it all cool down and see what we get.

The result?? Beige.

The resulting beige colour is not that inspiring, but I can still see dye in the pot. I am going to dig out my iron mordant pot and see if adding iron to the pot will improve the colour a bit.

Yes, I know it looks gross, but it is really useful in dye pots.

I have added 4 tablespoons full of the iron mordant. The colour has improved straight away. I will leave the yarn for another half hour then see what I get.

Much better.
The final result.

After rinsing the yarn and hanging it to dry, I have ended up with a really pretty orange/brown. I think that I will iron mordant a few more skeins and gather some more Usnea (a lot more). I can imagine a pair of socks knitted in this colour.

I learned today that Usnea species gives a brown/orange colour in dye, that iron mordant brings out the orange tones in this dye and that I have my father’s ability to drive while thinking about things (that is… no ability at all). I will continue to gather and experiment with lichens and fungus in the dye pot, but I had better spin some new yarn to play with before I get too carried away.

Dye wool with fungus

We have had a lot of rain recently (and our tanks are full) so of course all the fungal spores in the soil have taken advantage of this and popped up mushrooms and shelf fungus everywhere. There is a lot of information online about dying wool (and other protein fibres) with fungus, so I decided to have a wander around and see what I could find to experiment with.

In the bush around our humpy I found many kinds of fungus after just a cursory look; I haven’t tried to identify them as I am mostly interested in using them for dye. It’s not a great idea to eat mushrooms you aren’t able to identify, and I won’t do it. I will also be using gloves to process my collected bounty, just in case they prove to be toxic.

Below is a collection of photos of the fungal and lichen life I found in my little adventure.

The plan is to dry most of the current harvest for later experimenting. I couldn’t resist trying one little experiment though.
I used a lovely brown shelf fungus I found on a dead tree with two tablespoons of washing soda to make an orange/ yellow dye pot. I simmered the pot of water, fungus and washing soda for an hour. Then I plonked in some merino home spun yarn and let it all cool overnight.
After rinsing and drying I ended up with a golden yellowish coloured yarn that my daughter has named ‘You dirty sheep’, the name doesn’t do justice to the colour which is actually quite beautiful. I can’t wait to do some more experiments to see what I will get.

The little shelf fungus on the left gave the muted golden yellow of this yarn.

Natural dye experiments- logwood on cotton and linen

Another natural dye experiment….
I have been looking for a natural purple dye for a while and came across logwood as a possible candidate. There are some problems with using it however; it is not really environmentally friendly as it uses the heartwood of a tree (destroying the tree in the process of gathering dye material is not really friendly) and it is exclusively an American product (so a lot of miles of shipping are racked up in it’s cost); it is expensive (see previous problem) and hard to find.
But…..I really love the purples and browns it gives in the dye vat.
Logwood has been used as a dye since the 1600s and has been expensive and valuable since it’s discovery. Apparently pirates loved to hijack a shipment of logwood sawdust on it’s way from Jamaica to Europe. After using the dye, I can understand why.
Not having access to a pirate ship, I had to resort to buying some online (possibly from pirates). It then sat in my dye box for a month or two waiting for the perfect project.
I had been given some ‘teacher clothes’ by a friend (thanks Louise), they are all cotton or linen and very high quality clothes…but, they are all either white or pastel colours (I can’t wear pale colours, they end up VERY dirty). I decided to try out my newly purchased logwood dye on them.
First step was to mix up the dye;

Logwood dye in it’s jar. I mixed it at a rate of 1 teaspoon per litre of water.

Then I mordant-ed all the clothes with Aluminium Acetate and plopped them into the dye bath. I left them there on the wood heater for a few hours and then took the pot off to cool. The results were a set of mottled purple clothes which I love. I think the mottling comes from my not having enough mordant in the mix; some areas attracted the dye more than others because they had more mordant on them.

A cotton shirt.

Cotton and elastane shorts


This linen skirt was originally pale blue. Over dyeing has given it a beautiful depth.

The tag from the linen skirt

A lovely linen shirt

Of course I won’t be able to wear them together (I would look like an over ripe eggplant), but they should add interest to an outfit.
I also had an old cotton hospital sheet (these sheets are virtually indestructible and must have Kevlar somewhere in their makeup; perfect for work) which I mordant-ed and dyed as well. The sheet then became a pair of elastic waisted pants. The dye bath was getting exhausted by the time I got to the sheet so I ended up with mottled beige and purple, to add some interest I mixed up a tiny bit more dye and flicked it onto the wet material with a paint brush (the purple spatter patterns).
They turned out pretty well I think

So now I have a lot of purple mottled clothes. I love the colours I got from this dye bath, but I won’t be buying it often because of the aforementioned unsustainability of the dye stuff.
I have concerns about the light fastness of the clothes too, but time and wear will tell. Of course I can always dye them again (or with a different colour) if they fade….I love natural dyes.

Natural dye experiments – gardenia powder and alum

My natural dye experiments have continued into the garden; I recently tried gardenia powder to dye some 100% wool yarn, and the results were spectacular. I found a listing for gardenia powder in my favourite dye stuffs shop (for the bits I can’t make myself); KraftKolour, and having a few dollars to spend (thanks to selling some home spun cotton yarn) I bought it. I was really curious to see what sort of colour I could get from a common garden plant. My mother recently found a mixed bag of pure wool in a second hand shop in white which she gave to me (thanks Mum), so I had a decent amount of yarn to play with.

The process is really very simple; weigh your fibre; mine was 123g, gather your equipment and off you go.

My equipment and supplies.

The yarn my mum found in a second hand shop.

I decided to mordant my yarn with alum at a rate of 15g per 100g of yarn (and yes I did use a calculator to do the maths).

I weighed up my alum and popped it into my yard dyeing pot with some water.

Once I had the alum mixed in fairly well with the water in my dye pot I plonked in the yarn in handy skeins (all tied up with cotton yarn so I didn’t end up with a tangled mess). I bought this pot to a simmer then turned it off and let it sit while I made up the dye.

My dye was mixed at a rate of 6g per 100g of yarn (yes…calculator again) in a big stainless steel pot. The dye comes as a sort of bluish powder but the dye pot goes a dark blue colour. I heated this water up almost to a simmer (close enough to the same temperature as the yarn in the mordant).

Then I fished out my skeins (using my trusty serving fork, that is only used for fibre work) and lowered them into the dye pot.

The yarn going into the dye pot. How pretty is that.

After about ten minutes it was this colour.

I turned off the heat on the dye pot and let the yarn sit until it was completely cool. Actually it sat in the dye until I remembered what was in the big pot on the bench while I was washing up that evening.
Then I rinsed the yarn in cool water, wrung it out and whacked it against a post to separate any felted strands (force of habit) and hung the skeins up to dry.

Drying skeins
As you can see the different brands of yarn took the dye up at varying rates. I love the different shades though and they are all very pretty.
My dried and wound up gardenia dyed yarn.

I am so impressed with this colour I think I will get spinning and make some merino home spun to try it out on; maybe I can get enough of a single shade to make a jumper or something.

Dyeing yarn with indigo

Indigo dye vats have fascinated me for a while now; the magic that happens when you add fibre to a yellow green dye pot to get a blue result puzzles and excites me. Recently I found the time (and courage) to have a go at it; thank you Sandy for the push.
First I did a fair bit of research about how indigo is made from the plant. Indigo is made from the leaves of indigo plants which are fermented, soaked in a caustic solution and then dried to produce the blue ‘rocks’ or powder that comes in the mail for me to play with.
Once I had my little pots of powders and chemicals, I downloaded the instructions for use and got to work…

I decided to dye some hand spun cotton as I had an order for cotton gloves.

I gathered up pots, scales, utensils, indigo, caustic soda
sodium hydrosulphite, yarn and a sense of adventure as per instructions 

I added the caustic and hydrosulphite to the 15 litres of water

I added the indigo to the dye pot

It made a big pot of blue at first, so I put the lid on and waited.

Until the pot was yellow/green with a copper scum on top.
This photo doesn’t show the copper scum to full effect, but it is there.

I decided to experiment with cotton, merino and suffolk yarns (because I had those lying around).

Better late than never, I found a pair of rubber gloves.

I made a tiny skein to test dye first, this one is cotton.

Well, it came out blue.

So I tied the skeins to a bit of wood and lowered them into the pot.

They went a lovely shade of dog vomit green/yellow at first.
 The copper scum shows up much better in this photo.

I lifted the yarn out and waited for it to turn blue

Which it did

Then faded to a much lighter blue as it dried.

That was the batch that worked……the story of the vat that didn’t is much the same until the ‘lifting the yarn out’ stage then I found that my four skeins of cotton yarn (which take forever to prepare and spin) had turned into a big blue jelly fish in the bottom of the vat. I eventually figured out that the 150g of caustic recommended in the instructions was just too much for the yarn and it melted. The second lot I cut the caustic down to 15g (about a tablespoon) and it worked well; must have been a misprint.

In ancient times indigo dye vats were made using stale urine (because they didn’t waste anything). The processed indigo was stuffed into a cloth bag and lowered into a big tub of stale urine and left to ferment for a week. Cloth and fibre was then soaked in the vat for various lengths of time then rinsed (really well, I would think) and left to dry in a breezy place. This kind of dyeing vat is called a sig vat. I will try this method at some point, when I can afford more indigo dye.
Maybe I should try growing some indigo plants, what do you think?
Have you tried indigo dyeing? What was your experience?

From fleece to tote bag and all stops in between – part four

Now I have some dyed skeins of homespun wool to knit with, its time to cast on and start.

When I have an order for bags I ask the client some questions;
What bag shape?
What colours?
What stitch pattern?

In this case, my client has chosen the petite bag, in black and rainbow colours with the Asthore stitch pattern. So I dug out my bag of reclaimed embroidery wool and saved scraps of pure wool and spliced them together using the Russian join to make two rainbow balls of wool.

My reclaimed scrap wool pile.

Joined together to make…
Huge balls of rainbow wool
Now I have everything I need; black homespun, reclaimed rainbow, circular needles and coffee. Away we go.

My favourite bag pattern of the moment is the petite felted bag.

I begin by casting on eight stitches (four on each needle) using a ‘figure 8 cast on’

I then knit the base of my bag by increasing stitches every second row., as indicated by the pattern.
Once the base is big enough I choose a slip stitch pattern and start knitting.
So far I have used these slip stitch patterns to make bags;
Dog’s tooth cross
Yin Yang
Fretted mosaic

The base of my bag is started. Eight stitches on each side have been increased to twelve.

The entire base is done; a total of 154 stitches. I am using the Asthore pattern so I needed to add a few stitches to make the number a multiple of 16 (Asthore is a 16 stitch pattern).

And the colour knitting begins. 

The pattern is beginning to emerge.

This is the quickest part of making felted bags, I can take my knitting anywhere and fill in free moments and I can settle down to a quiet evening watching a movie while I knit too.

Next step; felting. Stay tuned.

Note; I do apologise for my photography, most of the photos are taken in the evening with my phone so they don’t show true colour and are not well focused.

From fleece to tote bag and all stops in between: part one

From raw wool to….
A hand knit and felted tote bag.

Lately I have been selling a few of my hand knit and fulled/felted bags and I have run out of pure wool yarn in base colours (black, brown and grey). Looking around my bomb site of a craft room I spied my fibre cupboard and found about half a fleece of old merino (probably from a sheep long departed) and decided to clear some room for more fibre, spin some yarn for knitting bags and tie up all available free time for the foreseeable future in one neat package; I will wash, spin and dye the old fleece.

So I invite you to join me in the adventure.

The process is as follows;
Pull the bag out of the cupboard………

Dusty and dirty bag of wool. A memory of a sheep long past.

Merino wool is known for its crimp, or the number and size of the waves in the wool. Before wool diameter could be measured with lazers (microns) it was common to judge the quality of a fleece by the number of crimps.

Close up you can see the crimp in this fleece (and the dirt and vegetable matter). This was obviously an aristocratic sheep.

 I wash the wool before spinning, although many people spin ‘in the grease’ and wash the yarn after spinning. I like the feel of the clean, soft wool slipping between my fingers so it’s worth the extra work for me.
Washing or scouring wool is easy; all you need to do is soak the wool in detergent (I use cheap shampoo) and fairly hot water. At this point you have to be careful not to felt the wool by changing the water temperature suddenly or agitating it too much. I use a small tub and wash about 100g at a time. That way I don’t waste too much water as I wash the spun wool yarn from the last batch first (to set the twist) then I soak the next lot of wool for spinning. I spread my wool out on cake racks to dry before spinning.

A pile of washed wool, ready to card and spin.

You can still see the crimp in the locks.

Now it’s time to card the wool into usable rolags (a rolag is a little roll of carded wool). I got my carders second hand with my wheel. They work really well and probably will continue to be usable for several more decades.

Loading the carders

Carding involves moving the wool from one carder to the other while combing out the vegetable matter and knots.

The carded wool is then rolled up into a rolag

And finally curled up to be stored as a ‘nest’.

Next step is to spin up a reel of singles….but that’s a story for the next post. See you then.